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Van believed to have carried illegal immigrants

May 2, 2001

WEST DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) -- The 16 people packed into a minivan that crashed Monday evening in West Des Moines were illegal immigrants being smuggled across the country, immigration officials said.

Martin Diaz Contreras, 44, of Sonora, Mexico, died of head injuries from the accident.

All 16 people in the van were thrown from the vehicle when it slid off the Interstate 80 interchange at Interstate 35 and flipped over just before 8 p.m. Monday.

Thirteen people were hospitalized, three of whom were listed in critical condition Tuesday.

Two people were treated and released to the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

The 14 men and two women had left Phoenix bound for North Carolina and Florida, said Estela Biesemeyer of the immigration service in Des Moines.

Immigrant smugglers typically steer clear of states where illegal immigration patrols are the heaviest, often going hundreds of miles out of the way, she said.

Police said seats were removed from the back of the van so more people could sit packed tightly on the floor. The group carried few belongings, West Des Moines police officer Steven Areges said.

Biesemeyer said smuggling operations typically submit travelers to miserable conditions - traveling long hours and stopping only for gas.

Hundreds of illegal immigrants are smuggled across the country weekly in what is becoming a well-organized criminal enterprise, Biesemeyer said.

Immigrants typically pay about $1,500 to be smuggled across the border to a destination where they can find work or family, she said.

"They'll do anything to come to U.S.," she said. "They want to work to make money to send back to their families. They put themselves through this because this is what it takes to get here."

The group ranged in age from 18 to 45. The immigration service will take the travelers into custody as they are released from area hospitals.

Biesemeyer said the people in the van would be deported or prosecuted. She said authorities were unsure who was in charge of the cross-country journey.

West Des Moines police were not sure what caused the accident or who was driving.

Names of the surviving passengers were still not available Tuesday evening.

Police were interviewing witnesses and victims with the help of a translator Tuesday.

The Mexican consulate in Omaha, Neb., was helping contact victims' families.


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